I remember when I first saw Zeyn Joukhadar‘s The Map of Salt and Stars at stores in 2018: I was instantly drawn to its title and cover, and even more intrigued by the summary on the back. It wasn’t on my list long before I rushed back and bought it. However, it wasn’t until recently that I was finally in the right frame of mind to read it. After reading Etaf Rum’s A Woman is No Man, now felt like the perfect time.
Like A Woman is No Man, in The Map of Salt and Sorrows, we move between the Middle East and New York City. But here, it goes the other way around, and our protagonist is a few years younger. It’s 2011, and 12-year-old Nour has just lost her father. In the aftermath of his death, she leaves her home in New York City with her mother and older sisters, destined for the family’s original home in Syria. But these are tense political times, and just as the family is starting to rebuild, bombing in their hometown uproots them again.
We follow as the mother and three sisters are forced to flee Syria with their uncle and a group of fellow refugees. They have to be careful as they travel, must make the little money they have left last, must find shelter wherever they can. On top of that, Nour’s oldest sister, Huda, is severely injured from the bomb strike, adding to the difficulties in finding safety.
Their journey takes them through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco, all in the effort to reach their ultimate destination in Spain. But their travels become more perilous as they go, forcing them to split up and face life-threatening situations requiring cunning and luck.
Nour, a dreamy young girl who adored her father’s stories, parallels her whole narration with a tale set in the same lands but centuries ago. In addition to describing Nour and her family as they move from Syria around the Mediterranean to Spain, each chapter also takes us through the adventures of Rawiya, a girl who disguised herself as a boy warrior in order to follow a mapmaker around the world.
Rawiya’s journey mirrors that of Nour. Though she starts in Ceuta – a city in the African part of Spain – she eventually moves through Italy to Syria. From there, her quest takes her around the Mediterranean, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria… and by the end, Spain again. While the map locations match throughout the novel, so, too, do the characters’ fates. A double-whammy of two deaths – one in Nour’s world and one in Rawiya’s – is particularly painful.
While the present-day story is a harrowing look at the crisis in the Middle East and the refugees fleeing from terror, the legend of Rawiya is a fantasy adventure, the kind of quest that lives in the oldest tales. All is told by Nour, a perceptive girl with synesthesia adding a deep layer of color to everything she describes. Even if you don’t have synesthesia yourself – I don’t – these descriptions will leave you seeing screams in red and voices in gentle green.
The Map of Salt and Sorrows is an enchanting and profoundly important book, especially given our world today. With so many refugees in need of shelter and kindness, getting a glimpse into what it’s like to be forced to flee your home and travel across unsafe terrain is invaluable. This book will help you understand immigrants and refugees, empathize with them, and realize that we should help them and welcome them with open arms.
Zeyn Joukhadar has crafted a beautiful and compelling story that feels as magical as it feels heart-wrenching. Vivid prose, relatable characters, and a richly interwoven dual narrative makes it a standout book, one that I’d recommend to anyone. It’s important, timely, and memorable, and I can’t wait to read Zeyn’s next book.